What started as a fairly simple and laudable goal cleaning up the pollution at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles long ago devolved into a mess. That mess now is getting bizarre.

It's also a tragedy in the making. Hundreds, maybe a thousand or more little trucking companies that have long served the ports are in danger of being wiped out. And it's unnecessary. This mess could stop. That's what makes it bizarre.

The issue at hand is the Clean Trucks Program. The ports want to get rid of the thousands of old, fume-spewing trucks that ferry shipping containers into and out of the ports. They want new, clean-burning trucks. Many of the trucks that call at the ports are driven by their owners, many of whom are scraping by, and so the ports decided to subsidize the purchase of the new trucks. They came up with a fee on shipping containers that would help raise the considerable amount of money to subsidize the new trucks. The truck owners would still have to pay some, of course.

That's the laudable part. The mess began when the Port of Los Angeles insisted on what's called the employee model. That means that the new, subsidized trucks could not be owned by independent owner operators. The new trucks must go to companies, presumably fewer, bigger companies that would hire truck drivers as employees.

That caused an uproar because it would upend the way business is done at the ports. The system that grew up there involves a thousand or more small trucking firms that may own no trucks at all but that hire the independent drivers (many of whom are immigrants). The employee model means most of those small businesses would be wiped out. Nothing much of value to sell, even.

The reason the Port of Los Angeles is so determined to get the employee model, many believe, is that it is an open door for a union to organize the truck drivers. They can't organize the current drivers because the drivers are owners and not employees. Indeed, the Teamsters have been actively working the ports recently. The entire government of Los Angeles, of course, has made it abundantly clear that the city is beholden to unions.

It devolved into a mess. Truckers did not sign up for the new plan. The American Trucking Association filed suit against the plan. The Port of Long Beach, which is not in the pocket of unions, abandoned the employee model and said that owner-operators could still serve its port.

The Port of Los Angeles recently escalated the fight by enlisting big out-of-state trucking firms that already have clean trucks to boost their work at the port. The port decided to pay those companies $20,000 per clean truck to work here.

Now the port can say that this is a money-saving method, and it may well be. But the little companies believe they've been back stabbed. The way they see it, outsiders are being paid a bonus to take the work away. (See the article on page 1 for more.)

Look, this is a complicated matter. I don't pretend to have good answers. I do know most anyone can see that there's a good beginning, a good first step, toward walking out of this mess. The way out begins when the Port of Los Angeles surrenders its insistence on the employee model.

Is the need to get unions at the ports so important that it is worth committing carnage to the cottage industry that has grown up at the ports?

Charles Crumpley is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at ccrumpley@labusinessjournal.com.

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